Photo of Michael Carden, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Michael Carden, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

A curious thing happened. I was having a cup of tea with the CEO of a decent sized software company. She doesn’t want to be identified for reasons that will become apparent. But cup of tea! Narrows it a bit. We were chatting about their annual employee engagement survey and you could tell she was a believer – that everything great in her business grew out of having an engaged workforce. Also, she said, the board mandated it; every year they needed to select a top engagement vendor, run a survey, present the results.

Then the curious thing. “Here’s my time and money saving hack. This year we’re just going to use the question set Kenexa gave us last year, but we’re sending it out ourselves in Survey Monkey. Maybe tweak it a little”. She chuckled. But I could tell it was only half a joke.

Let’s tease this out. Employee Engagement has become an industry centered around proprietary knowledge. The big providers of employee surveys will all tell you they have the best, most well researched question sets for measuring employee engagement. It’s how they compete.

If you’ve got an industry that is competing on proprietary knowledge then two things always happen. Firstly vendors start investing some R and D resource in being differentiated rather than just investing it all in being the best. Its VHS vs. Beta. Secondly vendors have to build expensive sales teams to sell the reasons why their proprietary knowledge is better than their competitors, because, um business. Neither of these things are universally good for customers.

Back to the tea drinking software CEO, as she dropped her bombshell. “Someone should open source the employee survey. Make it the best thing ever.”


She went on. “In software engineering if some kind of development knowledge becomes so widely required that lots of vendors start trying to sell it, inevitably it gets open sourced and becomes free.” This is of course true. The very languages, frameworks, that all code is built on, and the operating systems and databases that run most of the internet are most often open sourced and free.

So let’s go down that rabbit-hole for a moment. The term open source comes from the field of computer software. It describes software where the originator provides rights to study, change and distribute the software to anyone for any purpose. But it normally means a bit more than that, implying that the software is developed in a collaborative and public manner. There’s plenty of research that shows that collaborative development from multiple independent and diverse sources, generates a better result than any one company is capable of developing and sustaining long term.

A few years back Facebook developed a framework (a software library) called React. They built this for themselves as a way to make all of their own code more compatible and faster to build and test. They then open sourced it; made it freely available to any developer big or small to use to build their own websites. Today React is used everywhere. Why did Facebook open source React? Because they understood that by putting it into the public domain they could get it tested in much wider use cases than they ever could themselves. As those wider use cases would uncover the need for bug fixes and feature development, open sourcing meant they also had a much bigger and more diverse pool of development talent to make the software better.

So. Employee Surveys. Why not open source the question set? Anyone who has spent time in this field knows that there are huge numbers of active thinkers ranging from seasoned practitioners through to academics and scientists, with all manner of management thought leaders in between. There are a lot of people who I bet would be willing to collaborate, and lots of people who’d be wanting to use the results. There is already so much base research as well as evolving ideas that you know it will be a vibrant discussion, but more than that, by being able to apply the question set in a wide and diverse range of environments learning and improvement would be swift. The best thing ever.

But, but… but… will it just be an unruly mess with no outcome? Will it suffer from death by committee? Actually it won’t. Because thankfully the methodology and rules for doing this have already been refined by the countless open source software projects. And those rules have already been successfully applied to diverse projects like books, music and social impact programs. Come on. There is nothing stopping us.

So here is my idea. Over at Joyous Labs we have been through a huge and expensive research project developing a 25 question set for measuring employee experience, mood and engagement. Our plan was to go out and sell it. But screw that. We’ll open source it. Because the thing that will make this best fastest will be handing it over to the community.

The start of the project is here:

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